“The Prophethood of All Beleivers” by James Luther Adams

The following is a chapter from the book by Professor James Luther Adams entitled “The Prophethood of All Believers”. This essay was originally published in March 1947.

One of the more vivid recollections of my youth in a fundamentalist group is the memory of their eager interest in the prophecies of the Bible. These prophecies were believed to encompass almost the entire range of human history. One all-embracing “prophetic” image that looms in my mind is that of an immense chart that adorned the wall of the church auditorium.

This chart depicted the pivotal events of creation and redemption, beginning with the original chaos and proceeding through the six days of creation, the first day of rest, the fall, the various dispensations of Old Testament history on down to the annunciation, the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection and thence on to the Second Coming of Christ, the Battle of Armageddon, the seven years of tribulation, the thousand-year reign of Christ, the chaining of Satan in hell, the last judgment before the great white throne, and the eternal peace and unquiet of the respective final destinations of all human souls. In short, the epochs of “salvation history” were set forth as “by prophet bards foretold.”

Religious liberals are accustomed to emphasize the prophetic task of the church. But we have long ago abandoned the whole idea of predicting the future by means of interpreting the biblical prophecies. In conformity with the findings of modern historical research, we have held that prediction is a secondary and even an unimportant aspect of Old Testament prophecy. Accordingly, we say that the prophets were primarily forthtellers and not foretellers; they proclaimed the action of God in history; they disclosed the meaning of history. We see the prophet as one who stands at the edge of a community’s experience and tradition, under the Great Taskmaster’s eye, viewing human life from a piercing perspective and bringing an imperative sense of the perennial and inescapable struggle of good against evil, of justice against injustice. In the name of the Holy One the prophet shakes us out of our pride and calls for a change of heart and mind and action. With fear and trembling the prophet announces crisis and demands ethical decision here and now.

This function of prophecy is well symbolized by a visual metaphor that is said to appear in a church in Toronto. On the altar in this church there stands a large crucifix on which the figure at first seems to be an importunate question mark, the prophetic question mark that stands over humanity’s ways that are not the ways of truth and right. It is the question mark that we would often like to liquidate, for it reminds us of the death-dealing effect of our egotism and our “virtue.”

But we fall far short of understanding the full nature of prophecy (and of the prophetic task of the church) if we think of the prophets merely as critics dealing with religious and ethical generalities. In the great ages of prophecy the prophets (whether inside or outside the churches) have been foretellers as well as forthtellers. They have been predicters – proclaimers of doom and judgment, heralds of new fulfillment. They have attempted to interpret the signs of the times and to see into the future. They have stood not only at the edge of their own culture but also before the imminent shape of new and better things to come. At times of impending change and decision, they have seen the crisis as the crisis of an age; they have felt called to foresee the coming of a new epoch. That is, they have been “epochal thinkers.” Wherever you find a prophet of world-historical significance you find a foreteller, and you find “epochal thinking.” By this kind of prophecy the signs of the times are interpreted as parts of a pattern, of an old pattern in the structure of the society which is passing away or of a new pattern of life which is coming into being. Jeremiah and Isaiah, Jesus and Paul, Augustine and Joachim of Fiore were all epochal thinkers in this sense; they saw themselves as standing between the times, between the epochs.

Prophetic prediction and epochal thinking have played an equally significant role in modern times also. The Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century, the heralds of the Renaissance, the mystical and radically democratic sects of the seventeenth century, the democratic revolutionists of the eighteenth century (including the founders of our own nation), the religious liberals of the same period, evolutionists and scientists, and the proponents of the Social Gospel in the nineteenth century – all were prophet bards foretelling, and struggling for, a new epoch.

Not all of these prophets have appeared within the churches. Indeed, some of the most influential of the epochal thinkers in the nineteenth century prophesied against “religion” as inextricably bound up with the passing epoch and as marked for elimination. Karl Marx, for example, in his attempt to interpret the signs of the times, predicted the end of the age of the bourgeoisie and the advent of a new epoch, the real beginning of history in the age of the classless society. He tried to support this prophecy by means of a “science” of society. The influence of Marx even upon non-Marxist thinking has been a profound one, for he has given to the masses a new concern for the “trend” of history and for epochal thinking. Even the proponents of “free enterprise” (the defenders of an earlier progressivist epochal thinking) have been constrained to defend their outlook in terms of prediction and of a theory of the inexhaustibility and viability of the present age. Friedrich Nietzsche, the great critic of Christian “slave morality” and of Prussianism, demanded, like Marx, that the scientist become a philosopher of culture and of history, a demand that many a scientist in the new atomic age is now beginning to recognize; and he predicted (with shrewd accuracy) the present nihilism of European culture as the consequence of the loss of spiritual vitality. He also heralded the coming of a new human. “Man is something that shall be surpassed.” Auguste Comte, an even more influential epochal thinker, took up the theme of the coming “third era” (proclaimed in varying ways before him by Joachim and Lessing and Hegel and Marx) and heralded the “third era” of science, the era that was to replace the ages of theology and metaphysics. Under his influence and under similar influences many social scientists have come to hold that their work should include prediction. Indeed, many would say that the ideal of science is to acquire the sort of knowledge that will provide a basis for prediction. So the social scientists (or at least some of them) have become interpreters of the signs of the times, attempting to discriminate the trends of the time and to describe our present position in the changing epoch. Edward Alsworth Ross of the University of Wisconsin, in considering the prophetic elements in contemporary sociology, has recently asserted, “Insight into the future is, in fact, the ‘acid test’ of our understanding…. From the days of Comte our slogan has been Voir pour prévoir, i.e., see in order to foresee.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the “anti-Christian” critics of our culture (such critics as Marx, Nietzsche, and Comte) have done more than the churchpeople to revive prophetism as prediction and as epochal thinking. As forthtellers (that is, as interpreters of the ultimate meaning of life) they could learn much about the religious character of true prophetism, but as foretellers and as epochal thinkers they cannot be ignored. We live in a world of change and as religious liberals we have the obligation to confront the problems posed by our social economy, the problems of depression and unemployment and insecurity which have become characteristic of the present phase of that economy. Only those who have a priestly attachment to the status quo (which moves whether we like it or not) will try to persuade us that we are living in a former stage of our epoch or that new occasions do not teach new duties. This sort of attachment produces the false prophets who say, “Ye shall have peace at this time.” They say “unto everyone that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, ‘No evil shall come upon you'”.

This spirit of false prophecy has been plainly exhibited of late in the journals that have been commending President Truman for his refusal to predict the future in his address to Congress on the state of the nation (even though he had been charged by Congress to do that very thing). To be sure, they do not say that businesspeople should eschew foresight and planning for the future; but they do give the impression that they believe that national history should simply take its course without benefit of foresight. They seem now to say, “No evil shall come upon you.” Then when it is too late to prevent a catastrophe, will they say the catastrophe was not our fault, or that it could not have been prevented even if we had tried? It is no wonder that the United States is rapidly regaining its 1929 reputation of being a “bad economic neighbor.”

When we speak of prophecy, of prediction, of epochal thinking, a host of questions comes immediately to mind. Can one predict with accuracy what will happen to the entire economy? Do we know enough to make our predictions more than wild guesses? Should we not confine ourselves to piecemeal predictions? Is it not fanciful and even dangerous to talk about new epochs? Does this talk not lead to utopianism and irresponsible tinkering and experimenting? How does one choose from among the predicters? And how can religious belief contribute to prophetic criticism anyway? These questions demand and deserve answers.

But whatever the answers may be, this much we can say. A church that does not concern itself with the struggle in history for human decency and justice, a church that does not show concern for the shape of things to come, a church that does not attempt to interpret the signs of the times, is not a prophetic church. We have long held to the idea of the priesthood of all believers, the idea that all believers have direct access to the ultimate resources of the religious life and that every believer has the responsibility of achieving an explicit faith for free persons. As an element of this radical laicism we need also a firm belief in the prophethood of all believers. The prophetic liberal church is not a church in which the prophetic function is assigned merely to the few. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith, to make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking that the times demand. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it. Only through the prophetism of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.

Hope is a virtue, but only when it is accompanied by prediction and by the daring venture of new decisions, only where the prophethood of all believers creates epochal thinking. If this foresight and this epochal thinking do not emerge from the churches, they will have to come from outside the churches. Humanity can surpass itself only by surpassing itself. Do we as religious liberals have access to the religious resources for this surpassing of the present? If not, the time will come when others will have to say to us what Henry IV said to the tardy Crillon after victory had been won, “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.”